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Dante Alighieri 
Inferno, Canto I 


A Triple -Rhyme Translation 
of the Divine Comedy 







A Triple -Rhyme Translation 
of the Divine Comedy 








Reprinted from The Sewanee Review 
for October, 1912 



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Translating is a difficult task under any circumstances, and 
translating the Divine Comedy into the English equivalent of 
the Italian "terza rima" is beset with so many special difficul- 
ties that it has come to be regarded as an undertaking no more 
likely to succeed than an attempt to square the circle would be. 
English, in the first place, is so much poorer in rhymes than 
Italian that the verse-scheme Dante employs has never been 
adapted to it with any success. Then, the eleven-syllable verse 
does not exist in English except as a variant of those of ten or 
twelve syllables, and the regular dissyllabic rhymes of Italian 
have either a ludicrous or a sentimental suggestion in our lan- 
guage, something that unfits them for use in rendering a poet to 
whom both qualities are entirely foreign. Besides this, Dante's 
thought is often difficult to render even in prose, so involved 
and complex is it, and yet it has a distinctiveness about it that 
is lost by a paraphrase or a free rendering; so that the translator 
into triple rhyme must make that un-English measure fully as 
flexible and manageable as unshackled prose, for in it he must 
not only reproduce the composition of one of the world's greatest 
writers, in a language naturally better adapted to its form than 
English, but he must also give an air of naturalness and ease to 
many strange locutions that Dante permitted himself to use for 
the sake of rhyme or emphasis. 

The difficulties of making a translation of the Divine 
Comedy in the metre of the original were sufficient to dis- 
courage Byron, who tried his hand at the famous Francesca da 
Rimini scene in the fifth canto of the "Inferno," but several 
men of less distinction have carried the task to completion, 
although none has done so with any great success, and of them 
all only Dean Plumptre is recognized as having made any sort of 
contribution to Dante literature. Lately it would seem that 
the need of a satisfactory verse translation has been widely felt, 
for in the year 191 1 alone, at least two metrical versions of 
Dante's masterpiece have been issued by English publishers. 

4 A Triple-Rhyme Translation of the ^^ Divine Comedy' 

Of these one is in what purports to be eleven-syllable verse with- 
out rhyme, while the other is rhymed in tercets containing, for 
the most part, lines of ten syllables, but feminine endings fre- 
quently occur. The translation here presented was begun sev- 
eral years ago as an exercise rather than as a serious literary 
undertaking, but it has been continued as far as the completion 
of the "Inferno," at first because of the fascination of the task, 
and afterwards as a result of the encouragement of friends. It 
aims to translate Dante as literally as possible in language that 
is free enough from inversions and distortions to be readable 
and intelligible without painful study. Epithets and additions 
merely for the sake of rhyme have been avoided, and all Dante's 
strong lines, as well as those that — like, "All hope abandon, ye 
who enter here" — have passed into English, are retained liter- 
ally, or in the form in which they are known. Only masculine 
rhymes are employed, for the reasons mentioned above, and 
also to give the uniformity of line that is characteristic of the 

The Divine Comedy consists of three divisions: "Hell,'' "Pur- 
gatory," and "Paradise"; and of these "Purgatory" and "Par- 
adise" have each thirty-three cantos, while "Hell" has thirty- 
four, an extra one being added to set the scene as well as to make 
the total number of cantos in the entire work one hundred. 

In the first canto Dante is described as starting up to find 
himself "at the middle of the road of life"— his thirty-fifth year, 
three score and ten years being the normal allotment of life — 
in the wood of sin and worldiness, into which he has uncon- 
sciously strayed as a consequence of wandering from the direct 
road of virtue while his spiritual faculties were lulled to sleep by 
his absorption in worldly undertakings. When he awakes he 
tries to return to righteousness — the mountain whose summit is 
lighted up by the sun, the symbol of reason. The three beasts 
that oppose his ascent — the lion, the leopard, and the wolf — 
are symbols of sins that infest the human heart, and they have 
been interpreted many different ways; but the main tendency in 
the past was to regard them as typifying pride, luxury, and 
avarice respectively, while now there is a disposition to look on 
the lion as violence, the leopard as fraud, and the wolf as in- 

A Triple-Rhyme Trayislation of the ^' Divine Comedy" 5 

continence. The fact is, that all these things and many more 
are symbolized by the beasts, for they represent sins both in 
Dante and in those about him, and they have a general impli- 
cation as well as a particular reference to Dante's own career so 
far as it represented what is universal to humanity. Thus the 
lion may be said to stand for pride in Dante himself — his be- 
setting sin— for the violence of worldly conflict that begets 
violence in those who suffer from it, and for the political coali- 
tion that took from Dante his peace of mind by unjustly depriv- 
ing him of his home and his good name. The leopard stands 
for a group of more insidious vices, those begotten by luxury 
and artificial refinement — physical and moral infidelity. The 
wolf represents grosser passions and lusts than the leopard, — 
physical sins of a coarser type and treachery begotten of the 
brute nature rather than the intellect. Vergil typifies human 
reason; but he also symbolizes the fact that his works were, in 
Dante's opinion, the chief sources of enlightenment during the 
Middle Ages, as well as the further fact that Vergil was the chief 
influence on Dante's own intellectual development; for through 
him Dante learned to comprehend the universe visible to the 
intellect, the necessary preliminary to earthly happiness and to 
an understanding of the vaster universe that theology discloses 
to the eye of faith. 

The time of the vision is said to have been from Good Friday 
to Easter Sunday in the year 1300, hence Dante says the sun 
was mounting with the same stars that accompanied him when 
Divine Love first moved the heavenly bodies; for according to 
theological teaching, the creation took place when the stars are 
in the position they occupy at Easter. 

The only other matter in the first canto that requires mention 
is the "feltro" passage. This is merely a prophecy put in the 
mouth of Vergil to the effect that Italy would some day have a 
redeemer who would purge her politics of the brutal selfishness 
that characterized them. The prophecy is purposely couched 
in terms that have no specific meaning, and any attempts to 
make it refer to a definite person are merely illustrations of how 
incapable the average mind is of appreciating anything that does 
not have a very limited and personal application. 

6 A Triple- Rhyme Trattslaiion of the '^ Divine Comedy' 


When at the middle point upon life's way 
I found myself within a forest drear, 
For I was from the rightful path astray. 

Ah, it to picture is a task severe, — 
5 That savage wood both rough and cruel sore, 

Which in the thought awakes again my fear! 

So bitter is it death is little more ; 
But of the good which there I found to treat, 
I shaW what else I saw therein tell o'er. 
10 How there I entered I cannot repeat. 

So wrapped in slumber was I in that part 
Where from the pathway true I turned my feet. 

But when I came unto an hillside's start, — 
The place at which that valley first divides 
15 Which with its terrors had so pricked my heart, — 

I lifted up my eyes and saw its sides 
Already clothe that planet's brilliancy 
Which men aright through every pathway guides. 

Then stilled became the fear in some degree 
20 The lake within my heart contained always 

Throughout that night I passed so piteously, 

And as a man, with breath that toiling stays, 
Who from the sea doth on the shore arrive. 
Turns round upon the dreadful main to gaze ; 
25 So then my mind, which fear ceased not to drive, 

Turned back its vision o'er that pass to run 
Which no one ever yet had left alive. 

When I some rest had given my frame fordone, 
Once more across the desert slope I went, 
30 My firm foot being e'er the lower one. 

But lo, almost on starting the ascent, 
I saw a leopard, quick and full of grace. 
With hide upon which differing colors blent. 

Depart it would not from before my face, 
35 But so impeded all advance of mine 

That oft I thought my footsteps to retrace. 

The sun was just beginning then to shine. 
And with those stars he was ascending there 
Which his companions were when Love Divine 
40 Impelled to motion first those objects fair; 

So that to hope the best it was my right, 
From that fierce beast of vari-colored hair. 

Both from the hour and from the season bright ; 
But not so much but that I was dismayed, 
45 When suddenly a lion met my sight, 

Which seemingly its way against me made 
With head erect and ravening to feed. 
So that the very air appeared afraid. 

A Triple-Rhyme Translation of the ^^ Divine Comedy'' 

And then a wolf I saw, which with all greed 
50 Seemed laden, from its dreadful meagreness. 

Which wretched lives had many made to lead. 
This latter brought on me such heaviness, 
So fearful was the aspect that she had. 
That I lost hope the height e'er to possess. 
55 And as a man who when he gains is glad, 

But comes the time when losses persecute. 
In all his thoughts doth weep and groweth sad ; 
So I became before that peaceless brute. 
Which, ever as it slowly towards me crept, 
60 Me back was thrusting where the sun is mute. 

While thus I towards a lower region swept, 
My eyes on one before me there I placed, 
Who weak appeared from silence long time kept. 
When I beheld him in that mighty waste : 
65 "Have mercy on me," unto him I cried, 

"If thou be shade or man by flesh embraced." 
"Man am I not, but was," he then replied, 
"And parents had I from the Lombard state, 
And Mantuans by birth on either side. 
70 Sub Julio I was born, although 'twas late. 

And lived at Rome beneath Augustus good, 
While yet the false and lying gods were great. 
Poet was I, and sang the hardihood 
Shown by Anchises' son, who came from Troy 
75 When haughty Ilion in ashes stood. 

But why retumest thou where ills destroy .' 
Why dost thou not ascend the lovely mount 
Which is the source and cause of every joy?" 
"Now art thou Vergil, and indeed that fount 
80 Which doth so great a stream of speech expand ? " 

I said, while shame did o'er my forehead mount, 
" O light and honor of the poet band. 
Let me avail the love and honor now 
With which so oft thy volume I have scann'd ! 
85 My master and my author, too, art thou : 

Thou art the only one from whom I take 
The fair style that doth me with fame endow. 
Behold the beast ; she me to turn doth make : 
Aid me against her, famous sage I pray ; 
go She makes my very veins and pulses quake." 

"It thee befits to take another way," 

He answered, when me weeping he beheld, 
"If thou wouldst from this savage spot away; 
Because that beast which thee to cry compelled 
95 Lets not her paths by others be traversed. 

But hinders them until them death hath felled. 

8 A Triple-Rhyme Translation of the *^ Divine Comedy'' 

Her nature is so wicked and accurst 
That she can never sate her greedy will, 
But gorging makes her hungrier than at first. 
ICO She wives with many beasts, and greater still 

Their multitude shall grow, until the hound 
Shall come that her with agony shall kill. 

He nourished shall not be by gold nor ground, 
But wisdom, love, and manfulness supreme ; 
105 And 'twixt two feltros shall his home be found. 

He shall that humble Italy redeem 
For which the maid Camilla's death took place ; 
Turnus', Eur>'alus\ Nisus' wounds did stream. 

He forth from every cit>' shall her chase, 
no Till she once more shall back to Hell be brought. 

Whence Envy her did first of all displace. 

So I it for thy betterment have thought 
That thou shouldst follow, and that I should guide, 
Till thou those realms eternal shalt have sought 
115 Where thou shalt by the desperate shrieks be tried 

Of all those ancient spirits, torture-rent. 
By each of whom the second death is cried. 

Then shalt thou see the ones that are content 
To stay within the fire, for they believe 
120 That they will sometime to the blest be sent ; 

To mount to whom, if thou shouldst wish conceive, 
A spirit shall conduct more fit than I, 
I shall to her entrust thee when I leave : 

For that great Emperor who rules on high, 
125 Because I did his righteous laws disdain. 

Permits not me his city to draw nigh. 

His rule is everywhere, but there his reig^, 
There is his city and his lofty seat : 
O happy he elected it to gain! '' 
130 And I to him : " Poet, I thee entreat 

By that true God who was unknown to thee, 
That this and greater ill I may not meet, 

Do thou, as thou hast promised to, lead me 
So I may look Saint Peter's gate upon, 
135 And those thou say'st endure such agony." 

Then he set out, and I behind kept on. 

Sidney Gunn. 

St. John's College, Maryland. 



Dante Ali^hieri 
Inferno, Canto I